Just a decade ago, matcha was nearly unheard of in most of the United States. According to Google Trends (which presents the amount of interest in words over time), searches for matcha first surged in May of 2015. Since then, matcha’s popularity has continued to climb and can now be found in any coffee shop worth its beans.
Many health-conscious sippers have fallen in love with the vibrant green drink. Advertisements for matcha lattes boast of its “meditative” qualities: The green tea latte at Starbucks describes itself as “a perfect zen.” The matcha powder brand Jade Leaf describes its product as a “healthy superfood.”
With any trendy food, you should ask yourself: Is this really as healthy as it claims to be?
Health Benefits of Matcha Lattes
Pure matcha powder became popular among wellness gurus because of its high antioxidant properties. In particular, it’s high in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Many teas have EGCG, but matcha is one of the top sources.
As an antioxidant, EGCG may reduce the damage caused by free radicals and oxidation to your body’s cells. Scientists are still studying why EGCG and other antioxidants have this effect on the body, but it seems to have some protective effect on cancer risk. Polyphenols like EGCG appear to help reduce damage by free radicals, UV rays, and oxidation, according to the National Cancer Institute.
In its traditional form, matcha tea is prepared by mixing a powder with hot water using a special bamboo whisk. It’s not just made at a quick-service coffee shop: It’s a ceremony. The rituals of making and drinking the matcha tea is done slowly, mindfully, and meticulously. It’s like meditation in itself, which explains that “zen” thing Starbucks was talking about.
Matcha itself tastes pretty bitter and earthy in flavor. To account for this, American coffee shops typically serve matcha tea in latte form, mixing in steamed milk and a sweetener to make it more palatable.
As a latte, the added low-fat milk or soy milk adds calcium, protein, and vitamin D to the drink. The steamed milk is also a surprising boost of potassium, a mineral in which many Americans are deficient—300 milliliters in a cup of soy milk and 370 in a cup of low-fat dairy milk.
Why Matcha Lattes Aren’t As Healthy as They Seem
Despite the zen-like health benefits of matcha, these lattes are—and we’re sorry to say it—not as innocent as they seem.
Matcha lattes sold in coffee shops are often heavily sweetened and made with lower quality matcha powder … not exactly the same as the ceremonial, meditative matcha teas that have long been prepared in Japan. For example:
There are 32 grams of sugar in a grande green tea latte at Starbucks.
There are 29 grams of sugar in a medium matcha vanilla latte at Argo Tea.
There are 41 grams of sugar (!!) in a 12-ounce matcha latte at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
For context, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams of added sugar a day. That “healthy” matcha latte surpasses that in one cup. (Here are other foods that exceed that daily limit of sugar in one serving.)
The matcha preparation matters, too. Top-quality grades retain their polyphenols, the micronutrients found in tea and other foods. The more processed the matcha powder is, the fewer polyphenols it has to offer. Some coffee shops use a pre-sweetened matcha powder blends that have already lost many of their purported health perks.
And in case you were wondering, a matcha-flavored cake, mochi, or Oreo is *just* dessert. Don’t choose the matcha-flavored dessert and think you’re doing your body any favors (beyond treating yourself, which you’re more than allowed to do from time to time).
Despite the hype, sweet matcha lattes are no miracle elixir. But if you love the matcha taste and want to treat yourself to a matcha latte, go for it.
Keep these tips in mind next time you’re at the coffee shop: